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Don’t give Jurassic World ideas — ‘Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs? The Hilarious History of Creationist Pseudoscience at Its Silliest’ book review

Yes, people actually believe this.

Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs? The Hilarious History of Creationist Pseudoscience at Its Silliest (2019, Cambridge Scholars Publishing), by Philip J. Senter, Professor of Zoology at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, represents the culmination of his research over the last decade on Young Earth Creationists’ thoughts about dinosaurs. “Young Earth Creationism” refers to a subset of Christian fundamentalists — roughly 8-22% of the American population — who deny not only the validity of Darwinian evolutionary theory, but also the geological evidence indicating that our planet is billions of years old.

This necessitates the collapsing of all prehistory into modern history so that, among other things, dinosaurs and people would have coexisted. Because evidence for such cohabitation is absent from the fossil record, Young Earth Creationists instead look for confirmation of humankind’s interactions with living dinosaurs in ancient art and folklore, as well as legend and scripture, in which they see depictions and tales of monsters (especially dragons) as the imperfect recollections of ancient humans’ real experiences.

As the title indicates, the majority of Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs? — Chapters 5 through 14 — deals with a particularly imaginative claim originally made by notoriously fast-talking Young Earth Creationist Duane Gish, that some dinosaurs could literally breathe fire, just like the dragons of fantasy. Those interested in speculative biology are guaranteed to find these chapters especially thrilling, as Senter breaks down how fire-breathing could work in a living organism, only to then reveal the serious pitfalls an animal possessing such a mechanism would face.

From “Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs? Physics, Fossils, and Functional Morphology vs. Pseudoscience,” Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 41, #4

Conversely, Chapter 4 (which is actually the longest in the book) deals with the various Young Earth Creationist claims regarding those myths, legends, and works of art which allegedly describe and depict dinosaurs. In each case, Senter works to debunk these claims and demonstrate what the particular stories or art in question actually contain.

He does not however consider why Young Earth Creationists would interpret this material in such a way, or what such interpretations might mean. Another downside is that Senter has declined to include photographs of the art in question, instead substituting “humorous” cartoon drawings of the pieces discussed.

Other material in the book includes a brief primer on dinosaur paleontology, the publication of The Genesis Flood (1961) by John C. Whitcomb and Henry Morris (the book which popularized Young Earth Creationism among mainline American Protestants), and a concise summary of Senter’s work tracing the origin of dragon legends and his evaluation of the biblical monsters Behemoth and Leviathan, which Young Earth Creationists claim are actually dinosaurs. While I remain skeptical of Senter’s overall evaluation of Leviathan and (especially) Behemoth, I think his contentions are provocative and worth further examinations by qualified biblical scholars.

The book’s final chapter (Chapter 17) and epilogue shifts focus from the academic to the personal, as Senter speaks about his own Christian faith — he is a member of the Greek Orthodox Church — which includes his belief in a non-literal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and theistic evolution.

Throughout Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs? Senter diligently cites his sources, including many primary documents culled directly from Young Earth Creationist literature, efforts that should be applauded. Most scholars operating outside the Young Earth Creationist faith have largely ignored their thoughts about dinosaurs, instead focusing their attention on the politics surrounding the teaching of creationism in public school science classrooms.

This dearth of attention is unfortunate, as it results in an incomplete picture of the subjunctive world which Young Earth Creationists imagine themselves inhabiting, a world that has important lessons to teach us about how history is interpreted and constructed, and how the language and power of science is used (and abused) within our culture.

It’s because of this strength that I’m disheartened to say that Dinosaurs? also contains some serious flaws, the first being an issue of tone. To be frank, from the subtitle to the last page, I found much of Senter’s language to be downright derogatory toward Young Earth Creationists’ beliefs, in an oddly juvenile manner.

Evidently fond of culinary-themed putdowns, Senter repeatedly refers to Young-Earth Creationists as “silly soup chefs,” and their theology as a “silly soup” or “goofy goulash.” The crayon drawings that pepper Chapter 4 continue this trend, depicting a generic Young Earth Creationist as a little cartoon “silly chef,” constantly befuddled by ancient art and myths.

While these may not sound like the most grievous of insults, they are repeated so frequently as to quickly become obnoxious. And for anyone still not offended, there are points where Senter just resorts to calling Young Earth Creationist theology “dumb” and “stupid,” too. All this was particularly shocking for me, especially in light of a previous Skeptical Inquirer (Vol. 36 No. 4, 2012) article by Senter, in which he stated the importance of writing about other peoples’ religious views with “wording that is diplomatic and respectful, avoiding ridicule.”

The second major fault is Senter’s evident unfamiliarity with the existing scholarly literature on Young Earth Creationism written by non-Young Earth Creationists. References to such standard works as Ronald Number’s The Creationists, Lloyd R. Bailey’s Genesis, Creation, and Creationism, Christopher P. Toumey’s God’s Own Scientists and, more recently, the ethnographic research of anthropologist James F. Bielo, are entirely absent. The lack of consultation with these works shows an apparent disinterest in understanding where Young Earth Creationism comes from, why its adherents hold the views they do, and what we can learn from them, culturally.

It also leads Senter to make some embarrassing mistakes, such as tracing Young Earth Creationism back to the early 1960s and Whitcomb and Morris. The true father of Young Earth Creationism was the Canadian Seventh-Day Adventist George McCready Price, who developed the basic core beliefs in the early 20th-Century, which include the coexistence of dinosaurs and humankind in the days before Noah’s flood.

Also absent is any acknowledgment of the role many Victorian-era naturalists and early geologists played in the formulation of Young Earth Creationist-style ideas via their liberal mixing of paleontology and biblical scripture, openly identifying Mesozoic fossil reptiles with dragons, monsters, and demons, as outlined in the work of scholars like Christopher McGowan, Ralph O’Connor and Melanie Keene. Senter makes only the briefest of references to this latter fact in Chapter 2, but largely glosses over it, perhaps wanting to spare his fellow scientists any culpability in originating the kind of ideas he finds so unbearably “silly.”

Ultimately, Senter’s Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs? is a mixed bag. While it contains some excellent scholarship, it’s packaged in a way that many will undoubtedly find off-putting, and crippled by its lack of consultation with key secondary sources. Its strongest aspect is undoubtedly the comprehensive database of primary sources it provides on Young Earth Creationist claims about dinosaurs, a virtual goldmine for any future researchers interested in this same topic.

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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